Maroon activities and slave uprisings were the most militant form of black resistance to slavery, although historians have paid little attention to the history of maroons in the United States.
The history of maroons, or “bands of fugitive slaves living independently from society,” in the West Indies and Latin America has been well documented. Maroon activities and slave uprisings were the most militant form of black resistance to slavery, although historians have paid little attention to the history of maroons in the United States. The historian Herbert Aptheker found evidence that at least fifty such communities existed in the country between 1672 and 1864, especially among the sparsely settled mountain, forest, or swampy regions of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. In South Carolina maroon communities were located in areas near rivers, such as the Savannah and the Congaree, and also in lowcountry parishes such as St. John’s, St. James Goose Creek, St. George’s Dorchester, and Christ Church. Maroons settled in the unpopulated backcountry in the eighteenth century after being forced to migrate from Virginia and North Carolina due to European settlement. By the late 1750s and early 1760s the backcountry was populated by newly arrived European planters and native-born maroons of African, Native American, and European descent who created their own distinctive culture.
The typical South Carolina maroon was a young man who had run away alone. Between 1732 and 1752, however, thirty percent ran away in groups rather than individually. The composition of the maroon groups was both African and Creole in nature, although Creole maroons tended to run away more on their own. Twenty-five percent of runaway groups that were advertised in colonial South Carolina newspapers were comprised of Africans who shared some commonalities, such as regional origins or ethnicity. African runaways in South Carolina generally absconded in groups of two or three, although bands of six to eight were also common. Most maroons were men, but women and children were also present in settlements, often escaping with familial groups.
A fluid relationship existed between maroon communities and Native Americans. In colonial South Carolina black men and Native American women at times ran away together. Frontier Native Americans sometimes provided shelter for runaways. There is evidence that maroons who fled to Spanish Florida banded with Native Americans there in a fight for freedom. On the other hand, some free Native Americans captured runaways for rewards. As early as 1733 South Carolina paid £20 for a live maroon and £10 for the scalp of a dead maroon. Evidence suggests that Catawba and Notchee Indians worked with militia in annihilating some maroon settlements.
Maroon activities varied by community, but many found it difficult to erect homes, care for families, and work the land without supplies. Maroons often traveled to more populated areas such as Charleston for food, clothing, and other goods. Some bartered with free blacks or plantation slaves, while others stole from their former masters or other whites. More violent occurrences, such as bands of maroons attacking and robbing white travelers or plundering houses and plantations, often provoked bloody reprisals. In June 1711, for example, South Carolina inhabitants were in such “great fear and terror” that the government was compelled to raid a maroon settlement. This cycle was repeated over and over, with maroon threats and planter retaliation occurring at times throughout the colonial period and even during the Revolutionary War.
After the war, many maroons who had fought alongside the British in hopes of gaining their freedom were attacked and defeated by state militia. In October 1786 a party of white militiamen clashed with a large maroon community living on an island in the Savannah River, many of whom had served with the British during the war and who called themselves “the King of England’s Soldiers.” The attack resulted in the death and injury of many maroons and the abandonment of the settlement. If caught, maroon leaders were frequently beheaded, and those who escaped fled even further into the interior. Maroons continued to exist, however, and to fight for their freedom. Incidents such as those in Ashepoo in 1816, Williamsburg County in 1819, Georgetown in 1820, and Jacksonborough in 1822 all produced the same results. Maroons and militiaman fought, with the latter winning each time. Even so, maroons continued to exist. These activities continued even during the Civil War, when a maroon community attacked near Marion in June 1861 demonstrated the existence of maroons up until emancipation.
Aptheker, Herbert. “Additional Data on American Maroons.” Journal of Negro History 32 (October 1947): 452–60.
–––. “Maroons within the Present Limits of the United States.” Journal of Negro History 24 (April 1939): 167–84.
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Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Johnson, Michael P. “Runaway Slaves and the Slave Communities in South Carolina, 1799 to 1830.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 38 (July 1981): 418–41.
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Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Price, Richard, ed. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.